The act of creation takes on infinite forms. In our ongoing artist interview series, we illuminate the distinctive artistic practices, influences, and creative challenges of our Pew Fellows, who represent a diversity of perspectives and creative disciplines.
We invited three artists—composer and vocalistEmily Bate (2021 Fellow), filmmaker Tom Quinn(2020), and visual artist Eva Wu (2021)—to discuss the initial sparks that light the way for new projects, what motivates their practices, and how making space within their work for the voices of community members can “invigorate the process."
We started by asking each artist where they begin when approaching a new project.
Bate’s compositions and performances focus on group singing and blend elements of theater, performance art, and choral and experimental music. Her beginnings depend on “the particular medium of the project and the circumstances,” she says. “I love research, so often I start by compiling interesting material from various books or making a playlist of other people’s work that I’m thinking about.”
For Quinn, who makes films that tell character-driven stories that blur the line between documentary and fiction, “It’s usually a character’s situation that draws me in, often based on real stories I hear. I tend to picture behavior first, often having to do with their job or community role. I find myself daydreaming about that character and over several weeks or months, a plot takes shape. Then, the hard work of focusing the story and my interest begins.”
Wu says their new media works, which fuse photography, digital collage, GIF animation, and lenticular prints, “begin with one or more original photos to function as the central focus or concept. Layering in an intuitive combination of textures, artifacts, images of nature, and stock images, I use Photoshop and a stylus to recolor, resize, mask, and animate my dreamscapes. Combing my composition with an almost obsessive and meticulous attention to detail, I carefully massage the work toward a vibrant palette and satisfying finish. If I set myself up right, I'll reach that revelatory and impulsive place—hands working fast attempting to catch up to the vision emerging in front of my eyes, as if I've lost control of the piece and am channeling from a higher source: an ethereal birthing perhaps; at best an orgasmic exhale.”
Why do you choose to incorporate both professional artists and community members as participants in your work? What important elements does this approach bring to your work?
Quinn When we were kids, my mom and dad would alternate nights where they told us stories before bed. My mom would tell us fantastic fictions, and my dad would tell the story of our day. I love mixing those two elements in my filmmaking. Because film is edited, you can incorporate non-actors while still shaping performances. It’s an opportunity to listen and learn that sparks surprising ideas for the narrative as well. I can also be shy, but the structure of making a film allows me to be extroverted.
Wu Working with and getting to know people of all kinds are essential components of cultivating openness and evolving as a person. Professional artists make great collaborators because we are highly skilled at translating ideas into production, having converted our passions into material expertise. Community members who aren’t professional artists themselves invigorate the process by bringing rich perspectives and fresh insight devoid of professional (results-oriented) pressures and/or industry disillusionment. In this way, working with people from different walks of life offers an invaluable renewable fountain of ideas and energies to respond to. I find myself endlessly impressed by and grateful for those around me. It's an honor when I can include them in my work.
Bate Creativity in general and singing in particular emanate from all people, not just “artists.” The poet Gary Snyder says that everyone is equally smart and equally alive, and I also think that everyone is equally creative. There are many layers of cultural and political bullshit that cut people off from activities, like singing and dancing, that are actually a birthright and a constant throughout human societies. I’m interested in work that makes that feel more real.
We all love the feeling of witnessing a performer execute something incredible that we could never do ourselves. Making room for everyone’s voice inside that same piece really interests me. Particularly in vocal music, I’ve inherited this tradition of passive audience spectatorship, and the value of choral blend, where a group tries to deliberately sound as similar as possible. There’s a lot of beauty in that tradition, but I’m playing with creating vocal music that comes perhaps from a different set of values or curiosities—vocal music where people come as they are, and we let things be messy, or live, because we’re a bunch of people in a room trying to connect.”
What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?
Wu My biggest motivator as an artist is probably my community and closest cheerleaders who remind me how valuable and important my work as an artist is. I create with the hope that a piece of my vision, my voice, a message of joy will inspire and liberate others. By liberate, I mean I hope my work offers audiences a momentary relief, a singular affirmation of goodness, a depiction of freedom that might spark a reminder of collective possibility. My fears include transitioning from life without producing work I’m truly proud of, disappointing treasured collaborators, or perhaps losing the blessings of sight or dexterity that allow me to create as I do.
Quinn I’m sure most creative people have the experience where your mind makes things on its own: images, stories, characters, music. Eventually, you want to share that, so you have to realize it. On some level, I know I want to leave things that will outlive me, but the driving force is more. My biggest fear is that I lack the ability to realize my ambitions, or that, during the process, my focus on creative work will negatively impact those around me.
Bate Biggest fear is a bold question! My biggest fear is one of the regular ol’ human ones - that I’ll be cast out of the circle of belonging and die alone. In art, that usually translates to being afraid that what I’m making won’t connect with anyone. It’s a good fear to acknowledge, and then just make what I want to make anyway and try not to worry about it.
When we invited the artists to pose questions to one another, both Wu and Quinn wanted to know about the balance of making room for art and other elements of life. They asked: How do you organize your life so that art making remains a priority? What supports have you learned to put in place while carrying the pressure of making work?
Quinn Once I decided to teach at the university level, a tenure-track position was important because it requires continued creative work. My filmmaking has always been a priority, but this structure allows me to both prioritize and justify that time in a different way. Staying near home has provided us with a support network that is especially important when creative work needs time. I think I've made compromises in both directions—in choosing a type of filmmaking that can be pursued outside of New York or Los Angeles and by making financial choices that allow for some flexibility and risk.
Wu I try to approach this with an attitude that there's art in everything I do—from the way I dress, what I cook, to the dreams I have at night. I see much of what I do outside the making of work as a potentially vital part of the overall process of living a well-rounded creative life.
Where to See the Artists' Work
Bate describes her newest performance piece, Wig Wag, as “a theatrical exploration of communal music-making, where the audience sings, reads text, and enjoys the pleasures of spectatorship, with a quartet of singer-performers leading the way.” Find out more about the work and public, in-progress showings in April and June 2022 on her website.
Quinn’s films include the Spirit Award-nominated Colewell, starring actress Karen Allen. In 2021, he offered an intimate look at his filmmaking preparations in this video for our Pew Fellows in Processseries.
Wu tells us that their latest work will be seen in June as part of the Hot Bits Festival, an annual queer film and event series. They’re also creating a menu installation for Golden Dragon, a new restaurant in West Philadelphia (5260 Rodman Street).